Tag Archives: witch-hunt

The Secret of Richard Webster

Witch hunting in North Wales

In lush mountainous Wales, an English literary scribe, Richard Webster, wandered, with his tape recorder, formulating a hypothesis that witch hunters were stalking its green hills and valleys. Webster didn’t believe in witches, of course, but he believed that other people behaved as if they did, hunting out an imaginary enemy within: a child sex abuser. Webster became an influential sceptic whose attention had been caught by the Cleveland child abuse controversy in 1987 and who, in the decades that followed, elaborated a quasi-conspiracy theory about the ‘creation’ of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s he was outraged by the convictions of men running cruel regimes in children’s homes in Staffordshire and Leicestershire – the Pindown regime and the Frank Beck convictions for sexual abuse: moral panic and witch hunting was afoot, he charged in his 1998 book, The Great Children’s Home Panic.

He became the stand-out champion of men convicted of rape and buggery of vulnerable children over whom they exercised almost absolute power, whose authority was guaranteed by their control over institutions in which children were effectively incarcerated. Their victims, by contrast, he maligned as scoundrels and ingrates.

He made the extravagant claim to a Home Affairs parliamentary committee on 14 May 2002 that investigations into children’s homes in Wales were witch hunts ‘without parallel’, that 80-90 per cent of around 580 suspects were ‘completely innocent.’ His grandiose exposition was that zealots and moral crusaders were spreading moral panic and that pro-active policing into suspected sexual abuse was creating miscarriages of justice. He wrote a book about the investigation into Bryn Estyn children’s home in North Wales, which he averred was ‘one of the most extraordinary stories in recent British history’. That made him, too, extraordinary – by association.

Something about men being accused of sexually abusing children and young people roused his indignation. At a time when most constabularies in Britain were investigating sadism and sexual abuse in children’s homes he rose to the defence of the accused in his 736-page book Bryn Estyn: the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, self-published in 2005.

Webster became the influential vector of a hypothesis floated during the 1990s and 2000s, that was all the more alluring for being airless, excessive and derived from the denials of convicted sex offenders. He became an exemplar of bookish scepticism that was less about scrutiny of the sequence of events than mere  disbelief. Webster also came to be regarded as saintly. After he died, his collaborator Bob Woffinden, a campaigner against miscarriages of justice, wrote an obituary in The Guardian on 31 July 2011: Webster’s ‘generosity and big-heartedness were extraordinary,’ he wrote

But Webster’s vaunted kindness did not extend to the victims, particularly the dozen young men who died or killed themselves as a result of their experiences in the North Wales children’s homes gulag.

Webster’s theory and practice

His intellectual mooring lay in his critique of Sigmund Freud and in Norman Cohn’s history of medieval movements of mass delusion.

Webster’s 1995 book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis claimed that not only was Freud’s ‘seduction theory’ of childhood abuse (later repudiated by the great man) wrong, but Freud was also wrong to retract: it was all wrong. Freud had ‘cajoled’ his patients into creating memories of events that never happened. So, Freud, his apostles and – above all – his feminist critics were all implicated in an epochal con.

Webster found inspiration in Norman Cohn’s book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, a study of ‘millenarian fantasies,’ collective delusions, cults and ‘dreadful irrational fantasies’ in Europe during the Middle Ages. However, he misrepresented Cohn’s thesis: Cohn had compared the great peasant revolts with the millenarians: the peasant revolts were mass movements, highly organised, coherent and focused; the millenarians, he argued, were by contrast isolated, alienated and marginal.

The modern discovery and re-discovery of sexual abuse has no equivalent in millenarian or witch hunt histories: unlike them it is anchored in real events, not outsiders, cults or quacks; mass experience that has found articulation in the health and welfare professions, feminism, criminal justice, and the laws of modern states.

Webster promotes a theory of contagion among social workers, police, therapists  and feminists who ‘retreat from practically all forms of scepticism,’ and who share an ‘ideological taboo against disbelieving any allegations of child sexual abuse.’ He offers no empirical research to substantiate this grand hypothesis.

In 2005 the Orwell Press – founded in 1988 by Webster himself – published his magnum opus, The Secret of Bryn Estyn. It is commended on the cover by a cadre of eminent sceptics. Prof Jean La Fontaine comments that he ‘admirably succeeded’ in doing what the ‘police and public inquiries failed to do: discover what really happened.’ What really happened, apparently, was mass delusion.

That’s not what two expert inquiries discovered: one led by a social services director John Jillings, was long-suppressed, the other, a judicial inquiry by Sir Ronald Waterhouse,  had no doubt that what really happened was all too real: widespread sexual abuse. The 2000 Waterhouse report, Lost in Care, described boys’ experience of Bryn Estyn as, ‘a form of purgatory or worse’ from which children emerged more damaged than when they entered and for whom the future had become even more bleak.’

The star in Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn is himself: Webster places himself and his method at the centre of the story. He describes his tools, his battery-powered tape recorder, his journey to a strange country where he offers guidance in the phonetics of Welsh – a language which very few people speak in Wrexham where Bryn Estyn is located – and which, I am assured by a Welsh-speaker he doesn’t get quite right. He provides maps for seekers-after-truth whose sense of North Wales is likely to be mountains, lakes, choirs, second homes, rather than institutions incarcerating naughty boys. His promiscuous details hold out the reassuring promise of really knowing things, of being there.


Chronology of Bryn Estyn Hall Wrexham – Wrexham History

He establishes himself as a passionate champion of convicted sex offenders, and the scourge of social workers, journalists and police officers and, not least, the wounded survivors of Bryn Estyn’s purgatory.

Alison Taylor

The North Wales narrative began in the mid-‘80s with an indefatigable social worker, Alison Taylor: boys had been telling her about violence and sexual abuse in children’s homes; she discovered that other carers and social workers had reported allegations, to no avail. Taylor reported the allegations to managers and then to police. In 1987 she was suspended after passing on the allegations to the police. She didn’t give up and in the early ‘90s delivered a dossier to the authorities. It emerged that 10 reports had been made to the local authority before her own.  In 1994, former social services director John Jillings began an inquiry, together with Jane Tunstall and Gerrilyn Smith. Lack of co-operation by the authorities almost forced the Jillings team to quit. In the event, the panel produced a report which the local authority insurers demanded be destroyed. In fact, some copies were shared under elaborately secret  circumstances with some journalists. It was not until 2013 – with the renewal of public interest in child sexual abuse – that the Jillings Report was made public.

Alison Taylor also took the story to the press – it was covered in Wales and the reporter Dean Nelson got the story into the Independent on Sunday and thus the London media.

Nelson’s previous experience had taught him that the victims could be vulnerable and sharing their story could feel like a journey back to hell. ‘I went first to the NSPCC to make sure there would be some counselling for people,’ Nelson told me. Contrary to the myth that disclosure is easy, encouraged by 15 minutes of fame, or compensation, some of the men he met just could not endure the telling of it. Nelson’s reports also referred to allegations about police involvement – notably a recently-retired police officer. He was unnamed superintendent Gordon Anglesea. Anglesea sued Nelson, the Independent on Sunday and several other press and television organisations, and in 1994 he was awarded a massive £375,000 in damages.

Webster would not accept that Peter Howarth was a sex offender who terrorised his pupils at Bryn Estyn: no, he was a martyr who had a gift for ‘reading difficult adolescents’ and who was ‘keen on bringing out any hidden potential he might divine.’ Their exposure of Peter Howarth’s notorious regime, he protested,  ‘constitutes one of the most terrible instances of collective ingratitude which is to be found in recent history.’

Anglesea got his comeuppance, however, when a fresh investigation, Operation Pallial, was launched in 2012 in the wake of a new wave of historic abuse allegations. Anglesea was prosecuted and jailed in 2016.

John Allen, the owner of several children homes in North Wales, that earned him an estimated £30 million paid by local authorities to ‘care’ for vulnerable children from all over the country, was also re-investigated, prosecuted and jailed for life.

Webster’s book had repeated the slur that the accusers did it for the money and blamed Nelson for the deaths of three witnesses who killed themselves after Anglesea’s successful libel trial. He implied that Nelson set them up, ‘witness manipulation’ the saintly Webster called it.

‘Webster couldn’t understand that all this was so painful to these men,’ Nelson told me. Webster never met Nelson, but confidently accused him of being ‘credulous’ for taking the North Wales victims seriously.

Webster’s critique of the Bryn Estyn investigation rests on his attempts to discredit both the accusers and the messengers. While the Waterhouse report commends whistle-blower Alison Taylor, the social worker who first called attention to the assaults on boys, Webster condemns her.

BBC ON THIS DAY | 21 | 1997: Carers accused in child abuse inquiry

In her attempts to expose violence and abuse, he wrote, she ‘almost inevitably bestowed upon herself a quite extraordinary degree of power.’ Power? Taylor’s efforts were rewarded by dismissal in 1987 and disrespect by people who really did have power – police and public service managers. All she had was knowledge but that didn’t give her power.

Webster’s review of the Waterhouse report in the New Statesman on 13 March 2000, headlined Can a Whistleblower be Wrong? re-iterated his rather obsessive grievances about her. It provoked a successful libel action by Taylor against Webster and the New Statesman. She won and secured a settlement that required Webster and the New Statesman to read out in court an apology and a retraction. Webster wouldn’t have it, and went back to court, where Britain’s senior libel judge, Mr Justice David Eady, ruled that the requirement to read out the retraction would be ‘unjust and unfair both the general readership of the New Statesman and the public more widely and to Mr Webster.’

‘Intrinsically dangerous’

Pro-active police investigations of children’s homes were known to their critics as ‘police trawls.’ In the early 2000s, complaints about these investigations prompted the the parliamentary Home affairs Select Committee to launch an inquiry. Webster, Woffinden and journalist David Rose presented the case against them to the Committee in 2002, Webster argued they were ‘intrinsically dangerous.’ Rose proposed that perhaps 50 innocent men out of 100 suspects had been wrongly convicted. Woffinden argued for a strict, three-year time limit on investigations and prosecutions. All three claimed that compensation was an incitement to falsely accuse.

The troika had a sympathetic ear in the committee chair, Labour MP, Chris Mullin. But the committee’s report in 2002 did not agree that the allure of compensation attracted false allegations and convictions; it did not agree to statutory time limit, it did not call a halt to the police inquiries. It reminded the police that they had a legal duty to investigate if they suspected criminal activity.

Yet the hearings had a chill effect. A decade later the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer commented, ‘the concern was that the police might have been over-eager in some cases, with the risk that false allegations might be made. Ten years later, post-Savile, the concern is that the police failed to give complainants more information, in particular to tell them that there were other complainants who might also be prepared to support a prosecution.’ A new consensus was needed, he said.

The deaths of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith released many muted voices. In 2012 allegations of historic abuse in North Wales were revisited and in 2013 Gordon Anglesea was arrested. Webster didn’t live to see Anglesea back in court. Some his victims didn’t live to see it either. But there were others, and they did.

In 2016 Anglesea was convicted and jailed for 12 years for sexual offences against boys between 1982-87. He died in prison.

Webster didn’t live to witness the demise of Anglesea and fresh investigations in North Wales. His reputation lived on, however: he had become a doyen of British scepticism about sexual abuse, consulted and cited by scholars and journalists, wrapping what the Australian criminologist Michael Salter describes as the excitable ‘pleasures of disbelief’, in a seemingly erudite account of the TRUTH.  Not as he saw it, not as you might see it, but simply the truth.

Webster exemplifies scepticism as a form of negative faith. He mounted one conspiracy theory to vanquish another: professionals talking to each other, researching, going to conferences!  A kind of cruel piety gripped his life, he spent years being a champion of convicted serial sex offenders, shunning the suffering of their victims, and learning nothing about what people do with their troubles, or wherein trouble resides.





Peter Ellis cases rises from the dead

New Zealand’s child abuse controversy: sex offender gets to the Supreme Court

A case that flooded New Zealand’s media a quarter of a century ago came back to life when the Supreme Court took the radical decision on 2 September 2020 to hear a third appeal by Peter Ellis against his conviction and imprisonment for sexual offences against children in a Christchurch creche – despite his death a year earlier.

Parents were horrified – including mothers who had initially resisted their children’s complaints about Peter Ellis, who blamed themselves for their children’s sudden, alarming behaviour, and who, confronted by their children’s persistence, were eventually persuaded.

It was grim, too, for children who had been the prime witnesses in the criminal trial and who were faced yet again, with a crusade to impugn their testimony – evidence that had been accepted by judge and jury in a criminal trial in 1993, two Appeal Courts and a judge-led independent review in 2001. Their evidence had been vivid, robust, consistent and accepted. And for three decades it has been traduced by Ellis’s supporters and advocates of the notions that children are  susceptible to suggestion and that child abuse is an urban legend whipped up by witch-hunters. The case was a cornucopia of vehement conflict during the 1990s about children’s evidence, memory, professional practice, witch-hunts, moral panic, feminism, child care, everything.

Peter Ellis had been an unsettled, flamboyant New Zealander in his late 20s who’d been in trouble with the law before he had the good fortune to be allocated a job in Christchurch Civic Creche in 1986 as part of his probation.

It was a time when New Zealand, like the UK and many other countries, was reforming its approach to childhood adversity. In the government published a review that announced that ‘ill-treatment and neglect are not uncommon and occur in all sections of our society,’ it introduced the 1989 Children and Young Persons, and their Families Act, and appointed a Commissioner for Children. This was also a time when men were being encouraged to work in a field they’d hitherto avoided, child care.

According to a judicial inquiry into the case by Thomas Eichelbaum, Ellis was known as ‘an outgoing, uninhibited, unconventional person,’ sometimes ‘risqué and outrageous.’ He was gay, but that was no bar to his job; he was trusted by many parents, ‘although according to what children said in their interviews, his boisterous games, tricks and teasing were not universally appreciated.’ His friend and advocate, Lynley Hood, noted in her 650-page bestseller on the case, A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case, that he was also a drinker – he’d have a drink at lunchtimes whilst working at the creche.

It all began in 1991 when a boy told his parents that he ‘hated Peter’s black penis’. (Peter Ellis was white). The remark was reported to the creche, Ellis was suspended, an investigation began, parents were alerted and over the next 2 years 118 children were interviewed. Most made no allegations of abuse, but 20 children did. In June 1993 Ellis was convicted and jailed for 10 years for abuse, including penetration.

In 1994 Ellis appealed. The appeal was dismissed. In 1999 he appealed again – according to Lynley Hood, he believed that the children’s evidence ‘had been given a weight and confidence to which it was not entitled’, and furthermore it had been given ‘unjustified credibility because of misconceptions about children’s evidence’; the evidence should have been treated at least with the greatest of caution and at best by total exclusion.’

Memory test

The story had flooded the media, Ellis acquired ardent champions, notably Lynley Hood, some alleged mental instability in some parents and the malevolence of child protection professionals, who were accused of going to conferences and contaminating each other, children and parents with their ideas, of being feminists or christians, and of being wrong.

The case became a test of children’s credibility. Their evidence was subjected to intense pre-trial assessment and argument, a criminal trial and two Appeal Courts. The second appeal in 1999 had relied heavily upon submissions by two eminent scholars – frequent witnesses for the defence: Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck, whose research focused on children’s suggestibility. The appeal was dismissed.

It was a classic case of the child sexual abuse backlash, the memory wars’ and what the American political scientist Ross Chiet calls the witch-hunt narrative.  

The Eichelbaum Report

After Ellis was released from prison he resolved to go on making his case, now for a free pardon and Royal Commission of Inquiry. The Ministry of Justice didn’t concede a Royal Commission, but it commissioned an independent inquiry by former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

His task was to investigate and report on current best practice in interviews with children and the investigation of multiple abuse cases, and to assess whether the Civic Creche case had been conducted accordingly. He was also required to consider several other inquiries, including Cleveland and Orkney, and Britain ’s Memorandum of Good Practice regulating interviews with children.

Here’s what he concluded: During the trial the defence argued that the questioning of the children had been oppressive. He acknowledged that, ‘the ideal position would be if the evidence of the complainants in such cases arose clearly and precisely, without any previous questioning, but it would be unreal to have any such expectation.’ It was also acknowledged that parents had been talking to each other, but the judge in the criminal case had not been persuaded that this had a ‘deleterious’ effect on the children’s evidence.

The defence claimed that the prosecution had been selective in its presentation of the video-taped interviews to the court, and withheld some disclosures that were deemed outlandish. The trial judge had allowed the defence to play any or all of the tapes to the jury. In the event, the defence played some of the tapes. Eichelbaum commented, ‘This merits emphasis, since there seems to be a common misconception that the jury was unaware of the bizarre allegations’.

Eichelbaum enlisted two international experts to assess the children’s interviews: Prof. Graham Davies, an expert on children’s testimony, and a contributor to Britain’s Memorandum of Good Practice, a guide to the conduct of interviews, and a Canadian psychologist, Dr Louise Sas, a specialist on the impact of trauma and the conditions in which children disclose sexual abuse.

Prof Davies did not find any evidence to support contamination, he thought some interviews were too long or repetitive, but he concluded that there were few gross violations, and by the standards of 2000 the quality of the interviews stood up ‘surprisingly well’, in fact, the standard was ‘exceptional for the time.’

Dr Sas regarded the child witnesses as reliable, and she ‘expressed the view that there would probably have been more convictions, had the contamination issue not been given such prominence.’

Lay to rest

Eichelbaum concluded that, the formal interviewing was ‘of a high standard for its time. Even by present day standards it was of a good overall quality. The interviews did not meet best practice standards in every respect, and if that degree of perfection were the test, few if any interviews of this kind would pass.’

His report offers a full account of the children’s allegations, their context and timing. An alternative account is provided by Lynley Hood’s book, A City Possessed. It invoked medieval witch hunts to argue that child abuse is ‘a major folk tale theme’ that now emerged as ‘urban legends.’ She insisted that – contrary to the evidence – most abused children ‘disclose voluntarily’ and most ‘suffer no long-term harm’.

Quiet Christchurch, she wrote, had been seized by moral panic and mass hysteria, an ‘inferno’ fanned by a coalition of feminists, child protection professionals and Christians and implausible children’s stories.

Hood had no evidence that was not available to jurors and judges. They were just wrong, she wrote. What she did have, however was disbelief. The problem was not sexual crimes against children, but ‘the models used by Eichelbaum, Davies and Sas that coerced children and ‘may seem in themselves to be forms of abuse.’

In the end, Eichelbaum had counselled that quality of interviews had been exhaustively ‘traversed in detail’ and revisited by a total of seven judges, ‘Mr Ellis’s case has had the most thorough examination possible.’ His wish, he said, was that the case ‘should now be allowed to rest.’

But it wasn’t allowed to rest.

In July 2019 the Supreme Court allowed Ellis another appeal. But then he died. In September 2020 the Supreme Court made the radical announcement that the case would go ahead – on the basis, in part, of the Maori tikanga tradition that a person’s prestige and reputation endures after death and extends to the person’s wider family.

The expert reports provided to Eichelbaum concerned the efficacy of the interviews with children, their memory and reliability and the implications of their behavior in the context of the abuse. The experts enlisted by Peter Ellis revisited the enduring debates about trauma, memory and suggestibility. These, said the Supreme Court, ‘raise issues of general and public importance and significant issues.’

These ‘significant issues’ have dominated debates about child sexual abuse for decades. Psychologists in New Zealand have noticed the alarming rise of applications to the courts, ‘mostly by defence counsel,’ to admit expert evidence about memory. Research published by the specialists Suzanne Blackwell, Fred Seymour and Sarah Mandeno, on applications covering the last 20 years, published in the summer of 2020 found that these were ‘almost exclusively in the context of sexual violence trials.’

The doyen of American law and psychology Thomas D. Lyon  explains in his 2019 essay, Child Witnesses that the overwhelming ‘difficulties children encounter in disclosing abuse’ leads most of them to remain ‘silent and only the most forthright children to disclose.’ Very few pre-schoolers make it to criminal court and as a result, investigators and the criminal justice system, typically encounter only children who are ‘unusually willing to disclose but susceptible to pressures to deny and recant.’

So, in New Zealand, the evidence of Ellis’s victims, who had been ‘unusually willing’ to speak, were to be excavated again: like the undead, never laid to rest.